Blindsided

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It’s not very often that a building containing 18,000 people will almost go silent for a few minutes, but the injury to Jason Pominville made that happen at HSBC Arena on Monday.

Thankfully, Pominville is in much better condition than what many expected after watching him lay in a crumpled heap on the ice after Nicklas Hjalmarsson’s hit from behind. Pominville was able to give a thumbs-out as he was taken off the rink on a stretcher, and amazingly enough did not leave the arena for the hospital that night. Reports are that he was even sitting up and talking in the dressing room.

The bad news it that he required eight stitches to close up a gash over his eye, and that he has been diagnosed with a concussion. The hit, which received only a two-game suspension from the NHL on Tuesday, has snapped one of the league’s best iron-man streaks.

Wednesday’s match against the New Jersey Devils was the first game Pominville missed since April 7th, 2006, where he was a healthy scratch against Philadelphia. In all, he led the Sabres in consecutive appearances with 336 straight games.

Fans are understandably very angry and disappointed by these results. However, the rest of the Buffalo Sabres roster was by far the most unnerved.

“We seemed a little stunned for a little while,” said coach Lindy Ruff, “[…] That is somebody laying there, you’re just thinking and praying that everything’s going to be okay.”

“Stunned” might be an understatement, because the team went into a shell following the injury. It’s more than understandable to be shaken up by an injury to your teammate, but the Sabres’ subsequent collapse against Chicago only suggests that this Buffalo team has a lot of toughening up to do before they’re ready for further success in the NHL.

After all, where was the response to the hit? Everybody who saw it first hand knew it was a dirty play, so why is it that Tim Connolly and Andrej Sekera were the only players to make an attempt at going after Hjalmarsson?

Was the two-game suspension enough?

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The team certainly didn’t try to make up for the lost opportunity afterwards. There was one major scrum during play following Pominville’s injury, which included a hit by Patrick Kaleta (who would go to the penalty box), and a fight between Cody McCormick and Jake Dowell.

Otherwise, the Sabres curled up and got ran over by the Blackhawks. After securing a 2-0 lead over the defending Stanley Cup Champions, at home, the Sabres would allow Chicago to tally four straight goals, the latter three coming after Hjalmarsson’s hit. During one span through the second period, the Blackhawks out-shot the Sabres 15-2.

Even when the Sabres found themselves with a Power play at 2:28 left in the game, where they were down by only one goal and had a 6-on-4 man advantage for a time, they could not beat young Chicago goaltender Corey Crawford for the game-tying goal.

The situation was eerily similar to Game 2 against Boston in the first round of the playoffs last spring, where Thomas Vanek was taken out of the game by a dirty slash, and the Sabres proceeded to blow an early lead at home to the opposing team. This can’t be happening anymore, not to a team that management claims it’s spent so much effort to build into a gritty club.

If the Sabres expect to repeat as Northeast Division Champions, and make a deeper drive into the playoffs, they need to start playing with more fire. This wasn’t a fluke accident like the gruesome injury to Richard Zednik of the Florida Panthers two years ago; this was a dirty hit by a member of the opposing team, one that made a big mistake when he caught Pominville in a bad position. Getting depressed over that is not an effective strategy to win games in the NHL.

The team has that predicament, as well as the question of how to perform without Pominville, on their table. It’s a fact that he’ll be missing some time, and it could possibly be a while. Concussions are some of the trickiest of all injuries in any professional sport, and are truly a day-by-day scenario.

Buffalo fans should be aware of it after Tim Connolly’s concussion struggles. Another perfect example is Marc Savard of the Boston Bruins, who is now suffering Post Concussion Syndrome and will miss an undetermined amount of the season because of a hit he sustained back in March.

The Sabres have to figure out how to win games without a player that has been one of their best on the Power play and Penalty kill, and was second in ice-time for forwards last season with 18:44 per game. His regular offense [60 points or more the last four seasons] will be just as tough to replace for as long as he’s out.

Nathan Gerbe is set to fill some of that role after sitting out as a healthy scratch for two of the first three regular season games. He will be placed on the left wing alongside Rob Niedermayer and Mike Grier, and the second Power play unit.

Gerbe had an impressive preseason for the Sabres accumulating three goals, two of which came on the Power play. The Boston College graduate appears to have made some strides in his game, and he’s definitely not short on intensity, especially proven by his preseason outings. It might just be what the team needs for a little spark.

They’re going to need that come Saturday, when they head to the United Center for a rematch with the Blackhawks. Hjalmarsson’s 2-game suspension will be served by then, which means he’ll be on the ice with the Sabres one more time, and there are a few rumblings going on between the teams.

“I think we play them Saturday,” said Kaleta, “We’ll make a point that you can’t be taking hits like that against one of our leaders and one of the better players on our team.”

If the Sabres won’t do it to prove they’re a legitimate force in the NHL, they better do it out of respect for Pominville after failing to defend him before.

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